Ensuring that students who attend institutions of higher education have a “seat at the academic table” has been Damon Williams’ top priority for more than a decade. He spoke with BE Modern Man about successfully identifying, navigating, and coaching those students to prepare and compete on the graduate and Ph.D. levels with their non-minority counterparts.
Name: Damon L. Williams Jr.
Profession: Chief Diversity Officer in the James T. Laney of Graduate School at Emory University, Motivational Speaker, College and Career Exploration Expert for High School and College Students
BLACK ENTERPRISE: What is your inspiration?
Williams: My mother is my inspiration. She grew up in what society would call, “humble beginnings” but her mother worked several jobs to send her and her sisters to Catholic school. My mother drove three hours daily in grade and high school so that my brother and I could attend a competitive school and obtain a good education. She herself went on to college and had a successful career before retiring. She had a goal of providing a two-parent household and did not allow the phrase “I can’t” to be spoken, and told us to treat everyone with respect. She inspires the work and the legacy I aspire to create daily.
BE: What does your new position as director of diversity for The Laney Graduate School at Emory University mean to students of color at a predominately white institution of higher learning and neighboring HBCUs?
Williams: The Laney Graduate School has always had outreach opportunities with diverse communities, but my position was created to have a comprehensive footprint with internal and external stakeholders. I am here to ensure that the institution has expertise on diversity-related matters and infusing this understanding throughout the campus environment to create a strategic plan for diversity. I provide key input and leadership to areas such as faculty mentoring, cultural competence training, and minority student retention so that current students have an ally at the table representing them. For students at neighboring HBCU’s, such as Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, and Spelman, I am here to increase the pipeline of underrepresented students of color and women pursuing Ph.D.’s so that we are producing more global leaders of color to enter the workforce.
BE: Describe your background working at Xavier University and The Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program.
Williams: Working at Xavier University after Hurricane Katrina was very dear and near to my heart because I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater and help shape the lives of students that were once in my shoes. Leading the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program named after the astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair was one of the proudest moments of my career. To have the opportunity to expose students of color to research and internship opportunities, travel internationally, and to attend the inauguration of our first black President changed their career aspirations forever. Those students have attended and graduated from the top schools in the country and are employed by companies globally.
BE: How do leaders like yourself break through the static and make an impact amongst your peers?
Williams: Diversity is a political campaign so we have to be skilled with many talents to navigate this path. Leaders emerge and sustain by not being afraid to stand up for what is right, are experts of the subject matter and have data to support it, and are professional, astute, and resilient through the storm.
BE: What key piece of advice can you offer to the younger generation and BE Modern Man hopefuls seeking to cultivate a successful career?
Williams: First, know that you can do anything that you set your mind and heart to. Identify your passion, expect a few speed bumps and roadblocks along the way, but be willing to put in hard work along the path. After a successful stint in the private sector, I was downsized in 2008. After volunteering for several months, I transitioned into academia and found my passion. That hard work and focus have afforded me opportunities like my job today.
BE: Why is it important that BE Modern Men like you are represented in your industry?
Williams: With the ever-changing education system and prison-to-school pipeline, black males are becoming extinct. Getting an education affords us a seat at the table so that we are a part of the decision-making process.
BE: As a man of strong character, how do you see your own impact within your community?
Williams: In my own personal narrative, I have always been the youngest and the only African American male at the table. It is important that my brand is represented to the best of my ability because I know that media contradicts me daily. Often, I am fatigued on flights, meetings, or while shopping having to explain why I articulate myself or dress a certain way but, due to media, I understand the importance of showing up with excellence each time.
BE: What does a BE Modern Man mean to you?
Williams: The BE Modern Man is a game changer who breaks barriers and creates opportunities. Despite all the accolades and success, a BE Modern Man knows that character is most important and always strives to be grounded in truth, hard work, and humility.
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